23 February 2009

Byzantium – The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich: A Review

Byzantium – The Early Centuries
Author: John Julius Norwich
Publisher: Penguin Books
Copyright: 1988

In the 330, after Constantine (272-337) had established his rule over the Roman Empire, he estalished a new capital in Byzantium (now Istanbul), and named the new city Constantinople. The move was due to the need to face threats to the empire from the Sassanid Persians (based in Iraq and Iran) and Constantine's dislike of Rome and its politics. Constantine also adopted the then-new Christian religion.

This book, the first of three on the Byzantine Empire by John Julius Norwich, takes us on a lively tour of the early history of the late Roman / Byzantine Empire. It covers the founding of Constantinople, the empire's loss of Italy and north Africa in the fifth century, Justinian's (482–565), and his famous general, Belisarius' (500-565), unsuccessful efforts to permanently reoccupy old imperial territories, the heroic Heraclius (575-641) defeating the Sassanid Persians in the seventh century, only to face the new threat from Arab caliphates, and finally the crowning of the Frank Charlemagne in 800 as emperor, which marks the end of Byzantium rule in western Europe. In the meantime, the Byzantine Empire suffered constant attacks from various tribes and nations from Europe and Asia, and the threat of schism between Christian churches in the east and west was never far away.

In a relatively short book covering 470 years (averaging less than a page a year), Norwich organizes chapters along the major events in the empire and provides some background and depth to the characters involved. The book also includes some good basic maps so that the reader can follow the action across two continents, and imperial family trees to help the reader trace the sometimes tangled imperial successions.

A fast paced historical narrative on a grand scale.

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